The best way for a polyglot, gay-friendly city to greet Atlanta Braves bigot John Rocker is not at all. Teams only see the Braves' Cro-Magnon closer, after all, when they trail in the ninth inning, on their way to a defeat.
For two games this weekend the San Francisco Giants handled Rocker the right way, taking 2-0 and 12-3 leads into the ninth and never needing to bat. But on Sunday, the Giants fell behind 8-4, and it was Rocker time.
Rocker, for those with short memories, became notorious when he shared his grievances about New York with Sports Illustrated's Jeff Pearlman. The No. 7 train to Shea Stadium, he said, was "like you're [riding through] Beirut next to some kid with purple hair next to some queer with AIDS right next to some dude who just got out of jail for the fourth time right next to some 20-year-old mom with four kids." He attacked "foreigners," immigrants, Asian women drivers, and described a black teammate as "a fat monkey" for good measure.
On Sunday, he had to answer to San Francisco, a citywide No. 7 train. He was mooned in Los Angeles and greeted with a bitter standing anti-ovation when he returned to New York's Shea Stadium June 30. But thanks to the gods of National League scheduling he hadn't yet taken the mound in San Francisco.
Up close, I couldn't help but pity Rocker, who wears his ignorance on his face like a disfiguring birthmark. Eyes close-set, scowl ever-present, Rocker was given a strong arm but a weak mind, and mixing it up with him just seemed like fighting down. He hasn't matured thanks to his year of notoriety; after a round of faux-apologies, he's decided to embrace his asshole status and embellish it any chance he gets.
On Saturday, before the game, as he tossed the ball around in center field with teammate Brian Jordan -- the black right fielder called Rocker a "cancer" on the Braves after his racist comments -- Rocker couldn't help mouthing off to taunting fans.
"I'm a millionaire and you're a worthless piece of shit," he told a heckler. "You don't even have a name or a face, you're just a number, a piece of shit." When he kept it up, parents of all races gathered their kids and moved to the concession stands to protect them from the raw sewage.
Then on Sunday, warming up before pitching the ninth, Rocker got a San Francisco treat: The bullpens at brand-new Pacific Bell Park are literally only a few feet away from the stands, and fans crowded in to heckle him as he began to toss the ball.
"How does it feel to be a foreigner?" one man called out.
Gay hecklers were merciless. "Johnny, there are gay men out here staring at you. How do you like it?" A few pitches later, the same guy turned it up a notch: "Johnny, how can you ignore me after last night? The promises we made?"
Rocker ignored the gay heckler and turned on a relatively mild-mannered loud-mouth in the second row. "You're just a pussy," he told him, and fell silent as he hurled a few fastballs over the plate. Then he finished the thought: "And I'm an American."
"You're a cracker," somebody else called out. "White trailer trash!" screamed a red-faced white man behind me.
When the Giants came to bat in the ninth, the crowd of 41,000 jumped to its feet to boo Rocker as he sprinted, pumped up and anxious, to the mound. He struck out Jeff Kent, but Ellis Burks -- who'd already hit three home runs in two games -- slammed his fourth pitch, a line drive over the left field wall, for his eighth RBI in two games. That's the best rejoinder to Rocker, and I couldn't help noticing that the African-American Burks was the only non-white Giant that Rocker happened to face. Manager Dusty Baker would be proud.
But then I rethought my knee-jerk racial reasoning. The bullpen bums taunting Rocker were almost all white. A prosperous-looking black family sat among them, watchful and silent, during the Rocker abuse. A Chinese-American woman and her Caucasian boyfriend cheered the hecklers but left quietly before Rocker pitched. A wide-faced, Indian-featured Latina nanny sat in the aisle and rocked a crying, tow-headed baby so his well-dressed, manicured mother could boo Rocker in the ninth.
In fact, the most aggressive people of color were ushers, security guards and cops -- all of them protecting Rocker. To a person, they were black, Latino and Asian, and they shielded their errant charge from the rowdy crowd with resounding dignity.
I was surprised to find myself ambivalent about the abuse of Rocker. I enjoyed that his hecklers were white, as if to say, He's one of ours, we'll deal with him. But I hated how often that they taunted him with "cracker" and "trailer trash." I don't want to spread the PC boundaries to make more words off limits, but it's appalling how epithets of class contempt represent the last acceptable bigotry.
The Giants couldn't add to Burks' home run, losing 8-5, but they took the series with the Braves, 2-1. San Francisco got to talk back to the National League's official bigot, and Rocker got his 19th save.
The series had that playoff-preview feel, as though the scorching hot Giants will have another chance at Rocker and the Braves in October. Maybe Rocker will mend his ways by then, and we'll kick his ass the right way: with a win.